Catching up on some recent reading:
The Singing Sands – Josephine Tey (1953)
I think the book that has stayed with me most so far this year is Tey’s The Franchise Affair (1948), which I read just before starting this blog and about which I can say nothing as interesting as Rohan does. I’d read a couple of Tey’s earlier books before, and they’re pretty vivid, too: a mouth-watering breakfast scene from A Shilling for Candles (1936) has stayed with me for years. The other night, needing a break from a long Kafka biography I’m making my way through, I picked this, Tey’s final novel, off my shelf and sank into it with relief.
Tey became a better plotter over the years (her first book, The Main in the Queue (1929) is a notorious failure in that regard) but plots aren’t really her thing. Solving the mystery isn’t what this book is about. What we get instead is an interesting (and ever-more pertinent) portrayal of a psychological infirmity that afflicts her protagonist, Inspector Alan Grant, specifically a pretty debilitating case of claustrophobia caused from overwork. Interestingly, that very same work, his desire to solve crimes, is paradoxically shown to be the most enlivening part of his life.
Grant, on forced sick leave, takes the night mail to Scotland to recuperate with friends. Leaving the train he finds a dead body and even though the case is nothing to him, and in fact not even a case, since it is ruled an accidental death, he can’t stop thinking about it. The time in Scotland, especially on a side-trip to the Hebrides where the wind scrapes some of his tension away, is indeed restorative, and there is even the possibility of a romance, which the novel surprisingly does away with, by having Grant return a week early from his leave to complete the investigation on his own. The ending feels rushed, not quite a part of the rest of the book, but I can’t help but feel that the artificiality of the conclusion is a comment about the cost, however necessary, of seeking to impose order on the world. It’s as if Tey were saying: all right, then, I’ll resolve this plot for you, but not the other.
Tey writes thrillingly of “the uncanny feeling that is born of unlimited space, the feeling of human diminution,” as she puts it, and evokes the pleasures of the Scottish countryside without being cloying or patronizing.
The Singing Sands left me sad that Tey wrote so few books, curious to think more carefully about her work, particularly her politics, and eager to read the rest of her books.
The Beekeeper’s Apprentice – Laurie R. King (1994)
Strikingly good Holmes pastiche, in which Holmes, in apiary retirement on the Sussex Downs, meets Mary Russell, a teenage, orphaned heiress and, more importantly, genius that he trains to be his apprentice and eventually partner. I appreciated the structure of the book, which takes its time, passing through an early episodic phase before reaching the main story line, which itself is split into two substantial parts (with, in between, a fascinating excursus to Palestine in the early years of the Mandate). Holmes really is the character that keeps on giving, and King handles him with aplomb. Russell’s wonderful, too. Is the rest of the series as good? I plan to find out.
Natural Causes – James Owald (2013)
Reasonably competent but utterly forgettable Scottish procedural. Inevitable Rankin comparisons do Oswald no favours. Though, true, even Rankin started small. It’s Oswald’s first book. Maybe the others are better. But I don’t much care to find out.
Transit – Anna Seghers (1951, English translation Margot Bettauer Dembo, 2013)
I read this as background material for something else I’m working on, and because I never need an excuse to see what the NYRB Classics people have been up to. Without having looked at the original, I can say that the translation seems excellent, and I note it’s been shortlisted for one or two awards recently. I must admit, though, that I was a lot more excited about this book before I read it than after.
Seghers brilliantly portrays the nightmarish bureaucratic snare that refugees from Hitler faced in leaving Europe, the whole series of exit, transit, and entrance visas that had to be obtained from largely indifferent foreign consulates, in the right order, always at the risk that one of them would expire before the next could be processed. (The US Holocaust Memorial Museum and Yad Vashem have copies of the flow chart prepared by Adolf Eichmann depicting the stages Jews needed to pass through before they could leave Germany in the 1930s, stripped of assets and dignity—assuming of course that they could find somewhere that would take them. It’s chilling in its meticulousness, like some demonic school project.) And she vividly conveys the atmosphere of louche desperation that characterizes the exiled masses in Marseilles. Their lives are so different than the everyday ones of the locals, who are partly contemptuous, partly ignorant, and partly amused by them.
But I became impatient with the existentialist philosophy that underpins the novel, the various references to suicide, the acte gratuit, the tension between fate and will, etc. And I didn’t care for the irritating love affair, if that’s the right word, that the narrator has for a woman who ceaselessly awaits the arrival in Marseilles of her husband, a well-known writer who, unbeknownst to her, has committed suicide in Paris and been reincarnated in the person of none other than the narrator, who happened to find the body and took his papers. Part of my frustration might be with the narrator’s inaction, his apparent will to abandonment. And yet one of my very favourite writers is Jean Rhys, whose books are filled with characters that cannot and will not act.
Whatever the reason, Transit left a bad taste in my mouth.
Seghers’s own story seems fascinating—she made her way from Marseilles to Mexico on a ship that also carried Victor Serge, Claude Levi-Strauss, and Andre Breton—and I’m curious about her other work, particularly the one she set in Mexico, Excursion of the Dead Girls. But my experience of Transit was such that I’m in no hurry to hunt it down.
Ice Moon – Jan Costin Wagner (2003, English translation John Brownjohn, 2005)
Risible German police procedural set in Finland. The protagonist’s wife dies of a long illness in the first pages, and the description of survivor’s grief is the most interesting part of the book. Far less interesting is the actual investigation, and the book seems hardly interested in its purported genre.
Annihilation (Book 1 of the Southern Reach Trilogy) – Jeff Vendermeer (2014)
I used to read a lot of science fiction. But that was a long time ago and I seem to have lost the trick of it. I thought I should expand my genre horizons and see what’s new. I’ve no idea where Vandermeer fits into things (I came across the title in a Facebook thread on good books for long train rides), and I’m hoping others can point me in better directions. I finished the book, but only by gritting my teeth. (And it’s barely 200 pages.)
Annihilation is about an expedition into the mysterious Area X, a borderland area that’s encroaching upon civilization and which previous expeditions have failed to return from. The narrator is the group’s biologist; she is quickly its only surviving member. I think the book is about sentience and language, maybe about what it means to resist authority. But I don’t really know. I thought the mystery element—what the hell’s going on in Area X? what happened to the other expeditions?—would help me return to the genre. But maybe that’s exactly the problem. Maybe it’s neither fish nor fowl genre wise. I don’t know. It just didn’t do it for me. But I want to read more science fiction. Can anyone help me decide what to read next?
Purgatory – Ken Bruen (2013)
Latest Jack Taylor novel. These are worth reading, especially the early ones. This one is perhaps somewhat less dark than previous iterations—though I’m not sure there is a darker series than this one—but Bruen’s signature style, the almost demented aping of speech rhythms in the prose, has become mannered to the point of near parody. I always enjoy Bruen’s shout outs to other crime fiction, though.
Jack of Spies — David Downing (2014)
New series for Downing (after the brilliant Jack Russell books), this one set before around the time of WWI. I really like Downing. His history lessons—for example, about the Kiautschou Bay Concession (German leased territory from 1898-1914 in China), where the book begins before making it’s way across the Pacific to the US and eventually across the Atlantic to the UK—never feel gratuitous, clunky, or potted. I’m already keen for the next book.
Two Books by Jo Walton
Hope to write a separate post about these—partly because I want to share how much I like them and partly because I wonder how they complicate what I’ve said about my experience with science fiction above: are they in fact even science fiction?—but for now, this is just a note to say that Among Others and My Real Children are really worth your time, especially the latter.